Music: John Leipold Cinematography: Lee Games
Starring: Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee and Irving Pichel
An American Tragedy. Comparisons are naturally made to the more popular version from the fifties, A Place in the Sun and the earlier version unfairly suffers. There are, of course, disadvantages von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy face, especially coming at the beginning of the sound era. A lack of musical score is the most obvious. There are also difficulties with transitions, which are made via title cards that harken back to the silent era. Josef von Sternberg had a short, but distinguished, film career, directing The Blue Angel and Morocco, as well as Macao later in his career. This film displays his considerable talents with the camera, but also his trouble with pacing, trouble that could sometimes render his films un-compelling
The story begins with Phillips Holmes as a bellhop in a Kansas City hotel. Out that night with friends, the film emphasizes the hedonistic nature of their dancing a drinking, and on the way home the drunk driver taking them home runs down and kills a little girl. Holmes leaves his mother’s mission to avoid arrest and heads out looking for work. As a bellhop in another hotel in Chicago he is told that his rich relations are staying there. The scene next cuts to him working for the family in their clothing factory in New York. Of course, he meets Sylvia Sidney at the factory, falls for her, and gets her pregnant. Meanwhile, he falls in love with Frances Dee and becomes desperate to find a way out of his relationship with Sidney without exposing it and ruining his relationship with Dee.
One of the most noticeable things about the production is the incredibly fluid camerawork. There is a beauty to the film that immediately brings to mind the best of the silent era, and gives lie to the belief that those elements could not--or should not--be duplicated in sound films. The biggest difference between this film and the remake is the protagonist. In keeping true to the novel, Holmes’ interpretation is almost cruel, decidedly lacking the sympathy that Montgomery Clift brought to the part. The acting is also of its time and tends not to translate as well to a more modern audience. Also, unlike the later film, Sylvia Sidney is ravishing in the film, while Shelley Winters, for all her obvious beauty, doesn’t have the depth of Sidney. Irving Pichel is the district attorney who tracks down Holmes after the “tragedy,” but has a habit of speaking too softly for the microphone.
Other than its few flaws, this is a film that is much more deserving of recognition than it typically receives. The surviving print is still in terrific shape and looks wonderful. The pre-Depression working class milieu is nicely done, and one wishes that the parts of the film dealing with the upper class were as lovingly recreated. This is part of the reason that the film seems to lack a dramatic drive to it, though it’s probably more appropriate to blame that particular trouble on the script. Still, Josef von Sternberg made some gorgeous film during his career and An American Tragedy is certainly one of them.